Until recently, luxury yachting and exclusive high-end regattas were rarely considered a pastime, much less an investment opportunity, in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Thailand was known for its colorful sea gypsies; the Andaman Sea, for its pirates. China, despite having 10,000 miles of coastline, had no previous interest in yacht clubs. And so, the world’s yachting set responded in kind—they continued to dock in proven hotspots like the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
But with newfound interest from both private parties and local governments, yachting in Asia has suddenly taken sail.
Thailand, for example, is experiencing a luxury boom. "[The] new government is keen to re-establish a marketing strategy that focuses on high-end tourism,” says Paul Davies, a tourism industry journalist based in Bangkok. “Yachting here really picked up ten years ago, and in the last five years has made a name for itself internationally.” In Phuket, the $150 million Royal Phuket Yacht Club is just one of several popular high-end marinas that attract a world-class clientele.
In September, 2007, Singapore’s ONEº15 Marina Club opened as part of a massive $5 billion development of the eastern end of barrier island Sentosa. (It’s so-named for its location one degree, 15 minutes north of the equator.) With a 270-berth marina that’s connected to 400 new single-family housing developments, ONEº15 caters to a very wealthy crowd. There’s also the $30 million Marina at Keppel Bay, opened in January 2008, which can host 170 boats, including superyachts longer than 200 feet.
“Personally, I see great potential in the leisure and lifestyle business,” says entrepreneur and ONEº15 Marina Club founder Arthur Tay. “I’ve always believed that Singapore is well-positioned to attract international well-heeled tourists.”
It’s not just Southeast Asia. Mainland China had no world-class yacht clubs until Qingdao International Yacht Club debuted in late 2006. (Qingdao is the host city for the 2008 Olympic’s water sports.) It’s catching on across the continent.
“Yachting is considered a new trend for Asians,” says Kit Chotithamaporn, director of Kingfisher Marine in Singapore. “Many Asians are not accustomed to enjoying themselves at sea. The Chinese, especially, are brought up to be afraid of the water. But yachting is definitely a hot market amongst the younger generation—we’ve seen a threefold increase in boat sales over the last year and a half.”
More than the lack of berths, safety has been a major concern among owners of yachts and superyachts (defined as being longer than 110 feet). Piracy has been particularly bad in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, south of Bangladesh and west of Burma, respectively. But thanks to better policing, due in large part to government initiatives, the threat has largely subsided.
“The navies of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have raised their level of cooperation in patrolling the Malacca Straits,” says Herman Ho, managing director for TMX Show Productions, which runs the popular annual Boat Asia industry convention. The result is the lowest level of pirate attacks in the last 10 years. What’s more, Ho says, “There hasn’t been a recorded attack on a private pleasure craft there in the last five years.”
One sign of the region’s new yachting enthusiasm can be measured by the increased popularity of local high-end regattas. Once considered secondary events, races like the Phuket King’s Cup in Thailand and the China Sea Race from Hong Kong to Manila now attract top international talent.
In 2007, China, under the auspices of the Qingdao Yacht Club, became the first Asian nation to enter the prestigious America’s Cup, with a $35 million craft; and in 2008, the around-the-world Clipper Sea Race paid a call to Qingdao. This summer, the Volvo Ocean Race will pass through Singapore—the first Southeast Asian port in the race’s 34-year history. These are dramatic developments.
“The rapid increase in the number of high net-worth individuals among the Chinese has led to a visible consumption of passion toys,” says Herman Ho. This naturally includes yachts. But there’s a reason so many new marinas are being built specifically in Southeast Asia. “Many Chinese are now buying yachts and keeping them in Southeast Asia where their wealth does not attract as much attention. Additionally, taxes are still very high in China for such luxury toys and Southeast Asia presents an opportunity for these owners to berth their boats without a tax burden.”
Governments are taking note of this trend, and are actively positioning themselves to attract more marine tourism—from both local and international yachtsmen. This trend will continue, “as Southeast Asian governments realize the economic gains that can be derived from developing this industry,” says Joanne Cooney, managing editor of SEA Yachting magazine.
“Without a doubt,” she says, “the popularity of yachting will continue to increase. I can see Southeast Asia becoming the world’s foremost yachting and marine leisure destination in the not-so distant future.”